How cream of mushroom soup helped BYU’s Josué Dominguez reach the Olympics
Story by Sydney Townsend. Video by Ashley Pasley.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA – 2019
He lines up at the blocks, adjusting his cap and goggles. His hands meet the edge of the platform as he waits for the buzzer. Questions are bombarding his head as he leaps into the water and muscle memory takes over. Touching the wall, he completes his 100-meter breaststroke in just 1:01.28.
Across the country in Provo, Coach Shari Skabelund excitedly navigates a crowded Smith Fieldhouse during a women’s volleyball match to find BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe.
She has big news.
SANTIAGO DE LOS CABALLEROS, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC – 2000
In the north-central part of the Dominican Republic lies Santiago De Los Caballeros, the second-largest city in the country. It is known as “La Ciudad Corazón,” or, “the Heartland City.” Baseball is the clear favorite when it comes to pastimes in the city, but not every child grew up hitting dingers and running around the diamond. For BYU swimmer and Santiago native Josué Dominguez, it was swimming laps in the pool.
Like most Dominicans, Dominguez grew up playing baseball. He played other sports too, like basketball, but was first introduced to swimming around four years old. His cousin, a club swim coach, encouraged Dominguez’s father, Jorge, to enroll his two sons in a summer swim camp. After being pleasantly surprised following the camp, a coach told Dominguez and his brother they had potential in the sport and invited them to join the swim team.
“I think for me, it was always swimming,” Dominguez said. “I love playing all the other sports, but swimming just had something that fit. When I was in the pool, I felt great.”
The young prodigy was a natural swimmer and continued through his childhood. At just 12 years old, Dominguez qualified for the Dominican national team. As his swimming career started to ramp up, so did the responsibility and sacrifice. Between school, swim practice and full-time jobs, Dominguez and his parents had a lot to juggle. Jorge would often leave work to pick his son up from school, take him home to change and eat, then to swim practice, and then return back to work.
“Doing this day after day was stressful, for both of us,” Jorge said. “There was one time Josué didn’t want to go and after all the sacrifices I had made I said, ‘You’re going to swimming!”’
Dominguez doesn’t have the typical swimmer’s body. Unlike the long and lean muscle in most swimmers, he has a very muscular and solid frame. The muscle is the force behind his stroke, but his body needed to be tailored to his craft.
In order to stay competitive and in the best shape, Dominguez had to diet, which, for a young man who liked to eat, was the worst news to hear. His family visited a nutritionist that prescribed Dominguez a diet that would help him convert fat into muscle and help him perform better.
“I would come home from long practices and the dinner would be something I didn’t feel like was a dinner. I would have cream of mushroom soup with one piece of toast,” Dominguez said. “I hated that diet.”
Despite the undesirable diet, Dominguez continued to excel in national and international meets, racking up titles and records, until he graduated from high school in 2014. His times punched him a ticket to the 2014 Summer Youth Olympics in Nanjing, China.
There, as a 17-year-old, he broke the men’s Dominican national record for the 200-meter breaststroke, clocking in at 2:18.10. Later that year, at a meet in Mexico, he swam a 28.50 to break the men’s 50-meter breaststroke record, and a 1:02.86 to break the 100-meter breaststroke record.
A rival from home was also in China for the games. He and Dominguez had always been neck and neck in competitions.
“He told me he got a scholarship to swim at a university in Missouri and asked me where I was going to school. I told him any school that would have me,” Dominguez said. “He told me I could go anywhere I wanted.”
At another swim meet that year, Dominguez recognized a familiar logo. Rafael Alfaro, a BYU swimmer at the time, was wearing a BYU shirt that caught Dominguez’s eye. After talking, Alfaro took Dominguez’s times and said that BYU could be a great place for him. He sent the times off to the coaches back in Provo. Not long after, BYU reached out to Dominguez and told him that he had a spot on the team after his mission.
“I was like ‘no way!’ I talked to my family right away,” Dominguez said. “It made my whole year. It was the best news that I could have gotten at that moment.”
Dominguez is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which owns BYU. The school is well known among the Church’s millions of global members and Dominguez dreamed of swimming there since he was a child. The enthusiasm was mirrored by his parents.
“Mexico Puebla South Mission” read the mission papers when he opened them up. Just one week earlier, Dominguez had qualified for the Olympics but chose to serve a mission for the Church instead. For 18 and 19-year-old young men, this two-year commitment is often met with deliberation about when to serve.
“For me, it wasn’t hard. I made a decision that I was going to serve a mission no matter what. The question was just when I was going,” Dominguez said. “My nutritionist said it would be better for my swimming career if I went earlier.”
MEXICO PUEBLA SOUTH, MEXICO – 2015
Dominguez departed to Mexico in 2015 for his two-year mission. Not only did he give up two years of his life, but he gave up two years of training. Going into it, he knew he would have to reclaim his speed, as he was not allowed time in a pool, consistent with missionary rules around the world. His training time was cut down to just 30 minutes in the morning with workout videos his companion had and workouts BYU sent him.
Along with his morning workouts, Dominguez kept in shape by playing sports such as basketball. Seven months into his mission, he tore his ACL playing basketball. “The first thing that came to my mind was ‘Oh man! My swimming career.'”
After a visit to the mission doctor, it was clear Dominguez had to return home to get surgery. A couple of months of recovery and rehab had him back out serving in Mexico where he was able to finish the rest of his mission.
PROVO, UTAH – 2015
BYU freshman freestyler Connor Stirling opened his mission call, “Mexico Puebla North.” When his BYU coach found out where he was assigned, his coach informed him there was a missionary serving in the south mission that, if everything went as planned, would be at BYU soon. The coach asked Stirling to keep an eye out for him.
“I had always heard legends of this mammoth of a man, this hulk,” Stirling said. “This guy that was a great missionary and a great person.”
Stirling was determined to befriend this missionary.
SANTIAGO DE LOS CABALLEROS, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC – 2017
Dominguez returned home to the Dominican Republic in 2017. He wasted no time getting back in the pool and fighting to get his previous times back. But with a recent ACL tear, it didn’t come easily. He would go straight from therapy to practice. Luckily, Dominguez was not alone. His therapist, family and coach were right there with him.
Before he could attend BYU, he had to pass an English proficiency test in addition to other standardized tests. He passed these with flying colors and the stage was set for him to make his way to Provo. While he was excited, his parents were still grappling with the fact that their son would be so far away. But they knew that he wouldn’t get a similar opportunity if he stayed in the Dominican.
“To know he was going to a very prestigious university that was also the university of the Church was very joyous,” Jorge said. “But the stress came when we wondered how we were going to pay for the expenses that the scholarship wasn’t going to cover.”
After conversations between BYU and Dominguez, his parents learned they would just have to cover the airfare to Utah. A good family friend heard BYU had accepted Dominguez and offered to pay for his ticket. Jorge politely declined.
“The Lord facilitated the way so that Josué could accomplish everything. If he was meeting his goal, the sacrifices we had to make didn’t matter,” Jorge said.
PROVO, UTAH – 2018
As soon as Dominguez stepped foot on campus, the swim team was thrilled. Stirling, also recently returned from his mission, became close with Dominguez.
“We always joke on the team that me and him are twin brothers,” Stirling said. “We share the same birthday, served in the same mission, and a lot of our lives were just waiting for us to meet.”
But the connections between the two run deeper.
Stirling’s grandfather attended a BYU swim meet in Virginia and recognized a familiar face from the stands. After the meet, he asked Stirling what “the Dominican guy’s” name was. Stirling told his grandfather it was Josué Dominguez. After piecing the information together, Stirling’s grandfather realized he was Jorge’s mission president in the Dominican Republic.
Throughout his time on the team, Dominguez has greatly added to BYU’s swim program. Teammates and coaches have relied on him for his energy and demeanor. His example has placed him in a natural leader position.
“Josué is the definition of a firm foundation,” Stirling said. “He has a solid presence on the team. No matter what time of year it is, no matter how tired everyone is, he is able to pick everyone up.”
Since his time at BYU, Dominguez has acquired two school records: 52.69 in the 100-meter breaststroke and 1:55.97 in the 200-meter breaststroke. Levi Jensen, the previous record holder in the 100-meter breaststroke, took Dominguez under his wing and even encouraged him to break his record.
Skabelund has been impressed with Dominguez since she first saw him. “When he came here (the coaches) were like, ‘Oh my goodness, this guy is fast.’” As she has continued to work with him, her pride has only grown.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA (U.S. OPEN) – 2019
Dominguez’s times steadily improved over the course of his three years at BYU. He found himself back to where he started pre-mission: an Olympic qualifier. Standing on blocks, anticipating the horn, he was just a minute or so away from realizing his Olympic dreams. The noise and distractions disappear when his hands break the stillness of the water.
Skabelund was nervously tracking Dominguez’s times. She raced across the Smith Fieldhouse to find Holmoe and share the news, “We have an Olympian.”
Then COVID-19 shut the world down.
The Olympic Games were postponed and Dominguez’s dreams of competing were pushed back another year. The swim team was not allowed to practice anymore. Dominguez had to jump at every opportunity to get in the pool and train. He was able to swim at local gyms, the Provo Recreation Center and various outdoor pools in the area.
“It didn’t matter if the Olympics were going to be this year or next year,” Dominguez said. “That was the mentality that helped me get through COVID season.”
Even without the regular practice schedule during the season, Dominguez was able to come out of the off-season with faster times than before. At the 2021 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championships in February 2021, Dominguez swam an electric 51.81 100-meter breaststroke, more than a second faster than his previous record.
For Dominguez, breaking records has never been a top priority. “(It is) more about beating myself. I have to be faster than I was before. If that means breaking records, let’s do it.”
Finally, with the Olympics coming up this month, Dominguez will finally get his chance to represent his country, his family, his school, and his faith on the world’s biggest stage. The podium would be a long shot in these games. His goal right now is to make the semifinals.
Turns out the diet with cream of mushroom soup was worth it.